Fishing Up North
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Fishing Up North


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127 pages

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This second edition contains new and updated stories from the super-heated days when fishing fleets turned king crab into fortunes, and the annual circus of Bristol Bay’s monster salmon runs, to the dangerous life of the open-ocean trawler.
The true stories in Fishing Up North: Stories of Luck and Loss in Alaskian Waters capture the flavor of the modern fisherman’s life and fortunes in the waters off Alaska. You’ll find firsthand accounts of frightening weather, good fishing, terrible fishing, great days, and sweet living from the decks of crabbers, trawlers, longliners, trollers, and gillnetters.
This book and others like it have inspired film crews to trek to Alaska and cover the crabbing seasons for reality TV shows. Commercial fishing’s home ports—Dutch Harbor, Kodiak, Naknek, Cordova, Petersburg, and Sitka—are classic fishing towns, where docks, bars, and even quiet living merge in colorful portraits about life on the last frontier.
“Sometimes I hate it, but other times I love it,” Tim Sanger tells me at dawn on the run home. He is on the wheel as we ease through calm seas at nine knots off a coast that inspires well-being just because you feel so lucky just to be seeing it. To the north, the snow-white peaks slip into the sea from crests that march like a saw blade across unusually clear blue sky in the flat light of an early Arctic morning. In February, the sun glides in a low groove across the southern horizon, a mere rumor of heat and light.
“I was as green as they get when I get when I got on this boat last year,” Sanger says. “Now I know there isn’t any other way to get the feeling I got when we got 70,000 pounds of halibut in one twenty-four-hour opening. I looked down in the hold and saw all those fish and I realized that I caught every one of them. And then there’s the paycheck. I guess fishing is kind of addictive.”
Prelude: Getting Lucky
Ch 1 The Beast of Ugly Seasons King Crabbing, Dutch Harbor
Ch 2 Talking Price and the Cruel Sixteen Salmon Gillnetting, Bristol Bay
Ch 3 The Billion dollar Bottomfish Dream Groundfish Trawling
Ch 4 Kenny and the Council Westward Hilton Hotel, Anchorage
Ch 5 Flying Fish and the Death of a Plane at Egegik Salmon setnetting Bristol Bay
Ch 6 A Beautiful Place to Be Salmon Trolling, Southeast Alaska
Ch 7 Fishing with Modest Ambition Codfish Trawling, Kodiak
Ch 8 Fishing the Flats, Salmon Gillnetting Prince William Sound
Ch 9 The Dream Comes True on the Chain Pollock Trawling, Dutch Harbor
Ch 10 The Resurrection of The Rebecca B Codfish longlinging, Gulf of Alaska
Ch 11 Kelping for Crude The Exxon Valdez Spill
Ch 12 Derby Days, Sleepless Nights Halibut Longlining, Southeast Alaska
Ch 13 Salmon in the Trees Salmon Spawning, Alexander Archipelago



Publié par
Date de parution 01 août 2012
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9780882409849
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0042€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.


Stories of Luck and Loss in Alaskan Waters
For Kurt, Kay, Rose, and Michael

Text and photographs 2012 by Brad Matsen

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of Alaska Northwest Books .

First edition published 1998.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication-Data:
Matsen, Bradford.
Fishing up North : stories of luck and loss in Alaskan waters / by Brad Matsen.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-0-88240-896-5 (pbk.)
ISBN 978-0-88240-984-9 (e-book)
1. Fisheries-Alaska-Anecdotes. 2. Fishers-Alaska-Anecdotes. I. Title.

SH222.A4M38 1998
338.3 727 09798-dc21

Designers: Elizabeth Watson, Vicki Knapton
Map: Gray Mouse Graphics

Alaska Northwest Books
An imprint of

P.O. Box 56118
Portland, OR 97238-6118 (503) 254-5591

I am grateful to have been a witness and recorder of some of the events and circumstances of this time. I am especially indebted to the fishermen and others in the fishing community who were so willing to allow me into their lives. Many thanks, also, to my editors and colleagues, John Pappenheimer at the Alaska Fisherman s Journal; Jim Fullilove, Chris Cornell, Hugh McKellar, Mike Crowley, and Marydale Abernathy at National Fisherman; and Mike Robbins at Oceans and Audubon for giving me, as fishermen say, a chance. Linda Gunnarson did a fine job of making these stories make sense, and Marlene Blessing, my friend and editor at Alaska Northwest Books, is again part of the great good fortune of my life. As always, my daughter Laara brought me endless inspiration and joy.

Prelude: Getting Lucky


1 The Beast of Ugly Seasons


2 Talking Price and the Cruel Sixteen


3 The Billion-dollar Bottomfish Dream


4 Kenny and the Council


5 Flying Fish and the Death of a Plane at Egegik


6 A Beautiful Place to Be


7 Fishing with Modest Ambition


8 Fishing the Flats


9 The Dream Comes True on the Chain


10 The Resurrection of the Rebecca B


11 Kelping for Crude


12 Derby Days, Sleepless Nights


13 Salmon in the Trees

Alaska, once again, was a last frontier. People will continue to fish for a living, but we all sail on a very different ocean now.
The good luck that frees a man or woman to fish for a living came to me at midlife when I bought a barely serviceable boat, sailed from my home in Juneau, Alaska, and went salmon trolling. My partner and I did everything wrong, including tying our gear on backward for the first two weeks, but we were euphoric for the whole season and, eventually, even caught enough fish to make it pay. I lasted only two years, though, mostly because the long seasons conflicted with fatherhood and I couldn t take my daughter, Laara, with me. My luck, however, held beyond my time on the grounds.
What you have here is a collection of a dozen stories, originally published between 1980 and 1992, some in slightly different versions, in National Fisherman, the Alaska Fisherman s Journal, Audubon, and Oceans. Together, they are an account of the Alaskan fishing grounds, which crackled with adventure and enterprise during the years after passage of the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, America s chief fisheries law. until its revision in 1996, the Act clearly stimulated development, but now fisheries everywhere are changing gait from unbridled growth to sustainability. Incredibly, we have reached or exceeded the capacity of many fish stocks to surrender meals to a booming human population.
In 1989, the united Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, in a routine annual report on the world s food supply, shocked everyone whose lives are entwined with the sea, meaning everybody on Earth. After a steady rise from 20 million tons per year just after World War II, the production capacity of the ocean peaked at about 90 million tons in 1988 and then flattened out. The catch has grown no further, despite the fact that the world s fishing nations are pumping about $230 billion a year into the fleets to produce seafood worth about $175 billion. No matter how hard we fish, it appears, the ocean we once thought would keep up with the burgeoning human population s demand for food hollers, Enough!
As I traveled and wrote on the Alaskan fishing grounds, it became apparent to me that fishermen were instinctively aware of this shift in our basic perceptions about the sea. By 1985, true environmental coverage began to make its way into the fishing trade papers and magazines, and soon people in fishing communities-particularly in Alaska, where most fish stocks still are quite healthy-were what you might call pretty green. The fisheries development boom that spanned the 1980s, we all could sense, was the last wave of an infinite ocean crashing onto the shores of the Aleutians, Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound, and the Southeast Alaska archipelago. Alaska, once again, was a last frontier. People will continue to fish for a living, but we all sail on a very different ocean now.
Regardless of the politics, economics, and biological truths that swirl around the business of extracting food from the sea, the people out there with the fleets are just doing what people do. They are ambitious, brave, frightened, rich, poor, confused, and amused, but fishing somehow differentiates them from other streaks of life here at the end of the twentieth century. These accounts of a mere dozen years in the histories of fishing people are a heartbeat in the record of thousands of seasons, but, for better or worse, they did immediately precede our discovery that the ocean is not infinite in its ability to produce food.
The stories in Fishing Up North are arranged as I wrote them, in chronological order, covering the major fisheries on the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, with one exception. At the risk of submitting readers to the same tedium as fishermen at meetings, I include out of order a chapter on the workings of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the eleven men and women who make the rules for the fisheries off Alaska. I also include a chapter on the Exxon Valdez disaster, which delivered a terrible blow to fishermen and, at least momentarily, alerted the industrial world to another variation of the folly of dominion over nature. Throughout this book, any errors of fact or recollection are my own, and I apologize in advance for the inevitable mistakes.

The Beast of Ugly Seasons

We re trying to get used to a few less zeros around here.
-Frank Bohannon, F/V Neahkahnie
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
-Hunter Thompson
For the first couple of weeks of the Bering Sea king crab season, it made perfect sense, in a twisted sort of way, to just forget that the forecasts said the crab had vanished. After all, it s a little tough to go out into one of the meanest oceans in the world, burn up enough fuel to light Vegas for a year, and run the risk of being maimed or killed unless you think there s a lot of money in it. So during the early going, the wisdom on the radio from the grounds went like this: The first trip doesn t mean much anyway They re all dug down in the mud They re here; they re just not feeding Somebody s got to be on them.
In Dutch Harbor and Akutan on the Aleutian Chain, packers were going through the usual motions, flying in hundreds of workers at $800 a crack round trip, tuning up the cooking and freezing equipment, and generally hoping that the season wouldn t be all that bad, that the great swarms of crab would again materialize. For five years, the king crab season had been a license to print money for almost everyone who showed up out on the Chain, and it was clear that expectations were going to die hard.
At Pan Alaska Seafoods, the tidy blue-and-white compound on the unalaska side of Dutch, superintendent Greg Gerhardstein was holding twice-daily sessions known as radio schedule when he called around his fleet for scores, parts and supply orders, and delivery times. Assembled in the office with him were his foreman, parts boss, assistants of one sort or another, and, crouched in the corner, the Beast of ugly Seasons. The first loads were coming in after a full week of fishing, and the outlook wasn t brilliant. The high boat so far had come in with about half a load, and the skip molts and tired crab shot the dead loss way up. But Gerhardstein was hanging in there, and his strong, polite voice reached a couple of hundred miles across the Bering Sea.
Ah, Libra, Libra, Libra. You there, John?
Yep. Good morning, Greg.
Ah, good morning, John. We ve got you down here for Wednesday night. Is that still good?
Sounds good. We re still Yankee Lima on the score. And we ll need somebody to look at our deck hoist.
Yeah, roger that. You need somebody to look at your deck hoist.
Over in the corner, Daryl Harford scribbled a note on his pad. Daryl is the shore man for the seven boats of Bill White s Astrology Fleet : Libra, Taurus, Aquarius, Virgo, Aries, Commodore, and the big catcher-processor Jeffron.
Ah, roger, roger, John. That s Yankee Lima, Yankee Lima. Gerhardstein looked over at an assistant, who quickly thumbed through a codebook to translate Yankee Lima to get the number of crab Libra had in her tanks. Yeah, that ll be Wednesday, then, John. How s it going now? .
Oh, getting pretty scratchy, but I figure it s the equinox. They re here somewhere.
Heads nodded in the room, as if to say, Of course. If a Bering Sea veteran like Johnny Pirak thinks the crab are around, that s good news, good news. In the corner, though, the Beast sneered at the optimism.
Okay, then, John. We ll see you.
Yeah, Greg. One more thing. We ll need somebody to look at Bob s back. It s hurting him, I guess.
Roger that, John. You need somebody to look at Bob s back. Yeah, well, good fishing. WGG65 clear.
Libra clear.
Ah, Ocean Dynasty, Ocean Dynasty, WGG65, Gerhardstein said then, sounding a little like Edward R. Murrow.

And so it went. All the scores, translated with the codebook, were grim. After a full week, the top trips would be around 90,000 pounds-250,000 would have been just okay the year before-and many, many boats were dragging in with exhausted crews and 40,000 pounds. Though the dock price paid to the fishermen at the opening was $1.27 a pound and sure to go up, most of that increase over the previous year s $.90 would be eaten up by the fuel and expenses of the longer trips and running around to find what few crab there were. In 1980, king crabbers caught more than 150 million pounds, and they thought it would last forever.
In the face of his monstrous overhead, Gerhardstein was remarkably cool. Pan Alaska had hired 400 people to run the three cooking and freezing lines at unalaska, and the costs of food, housing, and transportation were astronomical and fixed. Down in the plant, as the first loads were coming in, the butchers, shakers, boxers, and everybody else could read the handwriting on the wall: layoffs. Even if you stayed around, it was hardly worth it to hole up in the Aleutians if, in three weeks, you work a total of forty hours. The rule for a processing worker was No crab, no work, no money.
The best thing about this kind of work way out here is that you can keep what you make, if you make anything, said Keith Mattson, a lead man on the case-up crew who d been at Pan Alaska for two seasons. unless you re gambling or drinking it all away. The worst times are like now, when there s not a lot of work and nothing to do. Then you end up in the Elbow Room or the unisea Inn. The local thumping parlors, as Bering Sea raconteur George Fulton calls the Elbow Room and the unisea, weren t quite the spectacles of years past, unless you happened to be sitting with a crew from one of the oil company exploration boats. Like a new species colonizing a remote bay, the oil folks were starting to hit Dutch Harbor, and a lot of people were waiting in line for the money Big Awl would spread around. Though the dismal crab season is totally unrelated to the oil exploration on the Bering Sea, nobody is talking about dancing with the one who brung them, so for the locals it s Good-bye, crabbers, oh, you re a geologist, tell me all about it.
At sea, with the fleet, the rule is slightly different from the one at the packing plant: No crab, more work, less money. If you re not on the crab, you have to look for them, and that means more picking and stacking of the eight-foot-square crab pots that weigh a quarter ton each, exhausted crews, more injuries, and less incentive to hit the deck alert when the skipper calls, Showtime. And if you never find the crab-because there really aren t that many around-things get particularly grim in a way the Bering Sea fleet is not accustomed to. For quite a few years, the routine has been to run a day, spend three or four days plugging the boat, run in a day, wait in line, unload, and get out as quickly as possible. This year, the trips were seven to ten days long, unloading was a snap, and skippers and crews unconsciously found more and more reasons to stretch their time at the dock as it grew obvious that two-thirds of the crab really had disappeared.

Why can t everybody just remember that this business goes in cycles, says skipper Mike Angell, laughing, on the bridge of the Bulldog. Some of these guys got into million-dollar boats for $10,000 down, and they re wondering why they can t keep up with the payments now. I could have done it, but I said, No way. It doesn t really matter why the crab aren t here, they just aren t. It could be the water temperature. It could be overfishing. It could be that the cod and pollock ate them five years ago when they were small. Who knows?
Others are more comfortable with someone to blame. I ll tell you what it is, says John Pirak, master of the Libra, who had materialized out of the night with what, at that moment, was the biggest trip into Pan Alaska so far. It s the goddamn foreign trawlers. You can t drag all over the Bering Sea and expect to have any crab left. Pirak is tired and grouchy. You ought to make a trip with us, he says to me. I ll show you the foreign fleet. It s like a city out there, and I ll bet half of them aren t supposed to be where they are.
Okay. A ride into the Bering Sea. If you can t stay a full trip, we ll get you aboard a boat that s coming in. You really ought to see it out there, though, Pirak says, now on the bridge of the Libra. And I ll show you what a season like this is all about. You have to know how to scratch; you have to pick pots until you re blind; you have to fish every area you can, too. We even went up to Norton Sound this year. And we re going to go to Adak. And then we re going to put drag gear on and learn how to trawl. You can t just give up.
Affixed to the bulkhead of Pirak s pilothouse is a plaque his crew gave him after the expedition to Norton Sound. We are on a mission from God to pick pots for the Lord, it reads. That s from the Blues Brothers movie, Pirak says. You ought to see it. What it means is that this crew can pick and stack, which is all we did up there, faster than they can pick and dump. You ll see.

With assurances that transfer at sea in a survival suit is routine, I sail with the Libra, Pirak, and his crew. On the way out of Dutch, after dumping the dead loss crab and the garbage from the last trip, the crew assembles on deck for a beer to toast the last trip, the coming one, and the sense of teamwork that psychs these guys up for what one of them called the NFL of the fishing business. Bill, Ski, Loren, and Tom are there. A new, green teenager just joined the crew, and so far nobody has said anything at all to him. A sixth man, Bob, is in the engine room. Bob got hit by a runaway pot during tanner crab season the winter before and came away with a spinal concussion. At thirty-seven, he figures this season is the end of it for him. I ll still fish, he says, but not this. I m too old, and if you can t keep up on deck, you get hurt or hurt somebody else. I ve been at sea for twenty years, though, and I m worried. I just don t do too well on land.
A day later, before we reach the grounds, Bob bends over from a wheelhouse chair to put his shoes on and can t straighten up. He will spend most of the trip in his bunk, in great pain that even the pills he has can t touch. Injuries are part of it, I m told, and virtually every boat loses a man a year to an accident. If you don t have injuries, you re probably not working hard enough, one man said. Most of the time it s a bitch, though, because it s usually some guy who doesn t know what he s doing who hurts somebody who does. Everybody is leery of green men on deck, and the veterans are worried that as the paychecks get smaller, so will the skill of the crews drop off. There will be more guys who work cheap; there will be more injuries.
Pirak decides to stop in Akutan for hanging bait and to pick up some supplies for the rest of the Astrology Fleet at the Ultra Processor, a crab plant on a barge that s anchored there. The crew of the Ultra haven t seen a crab for two days and the atmosphere aboard the big blue floater is dismal, to say the least. Tied alongside as a refrigerated warehouse and extra sleeping quarters is the Al-Ind-Esk-a-Sea, a navy cargo ship conversion that has taken its lumps during the past two years. We re having a dance tonight, says an Ultra crew member who came to Alaska from New York City. Maybe they ll let us have a can of beer or two. This whole thing is pretty awful. I ve worked six hours since I got here, and talk about boring. There is just nothing to do, nothing but wait.
We re out of Akutan in the middle of the night and the weather changes from mild to wild. I m accused of whistling in the wheelhouse, summoning the storm, as I sit in the galley watching North Dallas Forty on television. It s a movie about the National Football League, about the abuses the players suffer for the money and the fame. The payments don t stop if the weather gets bad, so we don t stop fishing, Pirak says. Everybody in the galley who s working to pay last year s taxes, raise your hands, another man says. Everybody laughs and pumps their arms in the air. Because the bulk of crab crewmen s income comes at the end of a calendar year, the IRS lets them defer their taxes until the following year. That worked fine until 1981.
The weather is truly frightening. In the time it takes to get to what Pirak calls his test gear, the seas build to twenty feet, the height of a two-story house, the wind to forty knots. I sacrifice pots in places like this just in case they show up where you don t expect them to. You have to hunt them, he says. On the radar, Pirak picks up a large trawl fleet, and in an hour, we re jogging a hundred yards from a Japanese catcher boat. Its skipper smiles broadly at us from his pilothouse window as he hauls back his net. I ll bet he s not supposed to be here, Pirak says. He s hauling and running, you wait and see. And the skipper of that 180-foot dragger does just that, heading west to the mothership with a forty-ton haul of pollock on deck.
I call the Coast Guard all the time, Pirak says. They get sick of hearing from me, but they never do anything about these guys. I m a licensed master, so they have to take my protest. But they tell me the foreigners have just as much right to be here as I do, and that s bullshit. I m going to go to London for a dragging school, and I don t want to have to compete with these guys. These are our fish.

For four days and nights, the crew of the Libra picks pots for the Lord, but with slim results. Pirak s coding buddies on the radio report similar low scores, and all of a sudden, even a twenty-crab-per-pot average looks like Fat City, a sickeningly low number compared with seasons past. And then it s time for me to leave, on a wild day with standing seas that make the horizon look like a saw blade in the dim light of the Bering Sea morning.
The crew streams about 150 fathoms of line astern to a Dutch-bound Astrology boat, the Taurus, commanded by Bob Nelsen, another veteran crabber. Then Pirak swings the Libra 180 degrees so we re on a closing course with the Taurus, 200 yards off her beam. I am on deck in a survival suit with a life ring around my middle and the line now fixed to the Taurus attached to the life ring. Loren gives me a shot of Wild Turkey from his going-home bottle; Bill tells me to sit on the rail, and, a few seconds later, hollers, Jump! I bob beside the Libra, frightened that I ll crash into the hull, and then I feel the tug of the Taurus s pot hauler and I m on my way.
Just as I begin to relax and enjoy the ride, I pop off the crest of one of the twenty-foot swells, turn in midair, and fall back into the sea. To my horror, I am now being towed face-forward, and I realize what a sucker I am for not recognizing that dozens of things can go wrong in a deal like this. I try to shift around in the life ring, and just as I succeed at that, I look over my shoulder to see the numbers on the stern of the Taurus. The prop, I think. But Bob Nelsen swings the stern away from me, and moments later, pale and shaking, I am on deck and unable to stand up.
How s fishing? I ask, when I m able to speak.
Oh, not so hot, one of the crewmen says. But they got to be here somewhere. Somebody s on em.

The crab never really came back. During the glory years from 1977 to 1981 , the fleet was taking something like 150 million pounds a year; now they re lucky to get 25 million. John Pirak, like a lot of crabbers, did go trawling, the government ran the foreign fishermen off the home grounds within 200 miles of the coast, and a new boom-trawling for pollock and cod-rolled through Dutch Harbor.
Talking Price and the Cruel Sixteen

The 1981 Bristol Bay red salmon season proved that there is life after a market collapse. This year, the Bay delivered the pleasures of solid foreign and domestic money, a reasonably early price settlement, a healthy run of fish, and tee-shirt weather. Only a year ago, nobody seemed happy to see all the fish in the water, it rained every day, and people were walking around grouchy and somber as mourners at a funeral.
Still, your average season on the Bay is a cross between a Brazilian soccer riot and a summer camp where the counselors pass out hundred-dollar bills instead of marshmallows at the campfires. The whole show lasts just six weeks in June and July and draws an international crowd of 20,000 men and women to catch, butcher, and haul-this year-about 20 million salmon. Almost everybody starts out telling you they re up there for the money, but about ten seconds into the conversation, it s obvious that something else is going on.
The Bay itself is a gigantic funnel leading to six good-sized rivers that wash into the shallow, sandy flats of the Bering Sea. Red salmon spawn in certain kinds of river-lake-river systems, and those around Bristol Bay are perfect for them. The biggest run goes up the Kvichak River, through Iliamna Lake and into the countless tributaries and trickles around it. The other runs are smaller-on the Nushagak, Egegik, Ugashik, Togiak, and Naknek Rivers-but they, too, are legendary producers.
The village of Naknek is the home of several dozen packing plants, a pair of restaurants, and three bars. One of the restaurants, the D D Cafe, is in an old, two-story building that was a popular spawning palace for fishermen before such activities became illegal. Right next door is Hadfield s Bar, a windowless drinking machine with a clientele that runs to locals and the older set, which on the Bay means anybody over twenty-five. The hottest song on Hadfield s jukebox this season was Bette Midler s Stay with Me, with Blondie s The Tide Is High running a close second.
Just behind Hadfield s, a hundred yards away on the bluff overlooking the river, was the Naknek bureau of my magazine, the Alaska Fisherman s Journal. I had trouble setting it up the first night because I had forgotten to bring the stakes for anchoring the rainfly, not that I needed it. The first thing I noticed this year was that everybody was walking around with Caribbean tans waiting for the price to settle and the fish to hit. I heard right away, on June 22, that the biggest fishermen s negotiation union, the Alaska Independent Fishermen s Marketing Association (or AIFMA, which some people delighted in pointing out was an anagram for MAFIA), had just accepted an offer from Ocean Beauty Seafoods to fish for $.75 a pound, but until the other packers settled, none of the AIFMA boats would go out. When the votes were tallied, it turned out that more than 65 percent of the AIFMA fishermen decided to accept the offer. Mitch Kink, their negotiator, was going from plant to plant trying to get the other major packers to go along with the Ocean Beauty number. I heard a little grousing from some of the fishermen about the price because the word filtering in from the cash buyers out in the ship anchorage was that they were paying $.80 or even $1 already, and the price was almost sure to go up.
When I ran into Mitch, he said he was pretty hot about the early settlement reached across the Bay in Dillingham by the other marketing group, WACMA (Western Alaska Cooperative Marketing Association). That association s 350 members voted during the first week in June to fish for $.65 for deliveries of salmon to be canned and $.75 for fish to be frozen, so when Mitch went into price talks, the packers were saying, Gee, that WACMA number looks great to us. Later on, Truman Emberg over at WACMA s Dillingham office told me his members thought their price was okay and everybody just wanted to go fishing.
A lot of people who wanted to go fishing didn t, though. The place was loaded with drop-ins, the men and women drawn to the Bay by the allure of money and adventure, in search of jobs. It was a cosmopolitan group, all in all, that made the rounds of the D D and the Red Dog Cafe for endless cups of coffee, and the canneries and fuel docks looking for jobs. I asked one guy from the East Coast why he came up, and he said, Because my mother told me not to, and went on his way. Later I saw him on a city work crew cleaning up a minor oil spill in a ditch by the fuel dock. I ran into Greeks, Israelis, Australians, and Americans on the out-of-work circuit, and the bulletin boards in the bars, post office, and canneries were jammed with their strong and willing to work solicitations. One guy, wound up like a ten-cent watch from two hours worth of D D coffee, said job hunting was slow because the weather and the fishing were too good. We need a big storm or something, he said. Then some of the deckhands will get sick and tired and want to go home. Maybe in a couple of days.
As the price talks entered the final preseason hours, it became apparent that the early run predicted by Fish and Game wasn t going to materialize after all. The salmon seemed to be coming in on time for a normal peak around the first week in July, and the biologists were saying there would be about 27 million of them. Getting to Fish and Game for the daily biology line was a matter of hitchhiking from Naknek to King Salmon, about eleven miles. The road has more dips than a graph of the frozen fish market, and I came up with a bad case of frost-heave coccyx from bouncing around in the bed of a pickup that gave me a lift.
The trip was worth the bruises, though, because I ran into Chuck Meacham, Jr., the ace of the base when it comes to salmon prediction. He was sticking by his guns on the final size of the run, about 27 million, with a potential catch of 20 million to 23 million. We thought it would be early, Meacham said, but for some reason the fish got between Port Moller and the Naknek/Kvichak end of the Bay and they re milling around out there. It s only a matter of time, though. He told me he had gone to Japan during the winter to share prediction information with biologists there and found that both countries, for a change, agreed on the size of the run. Japanese fish brokers buy virtually all the frozen salmon from Bristol Bay, so they keep a sharp eye on the grounds.
Apparently, some of the Fish and Game salmon masters were worried about the fishing pattern that would come from good weather and a full fleet fishing from the beginning of the run instead of sitting on the beach on strike. When the efficiency of effort goes up, as it will under such conditions, the biologists start worrying about escapement, or how many fish will elude the nets to make it to the spawning beds. If the fish come all at once, or when the weather is bad, the fishing pressure isn t heavy enough to prohibit good escapement. The early word at Fish and Game was that there would be intermittent openings until the peak to guarantee the escapement, and that s what eventually happened after the price settlement. Of all the river systems, the Kvichak caused the most concern, but that s historically a later run, and eventually the escapement levels would climb to acceptable levels.
King Salmon is the airline gateway to the Bay and also the gathering point for hundreds of big-bucks foreign and American sports fishermen who come to work out on the fabulous trout and salmon rivers. Commercial fishermen hang out in King Salmon, too, when they re picking up freight or people at the airport or flying fish out on a private deal, or hitting the bars for the hell of it. And the graffiti in the men s rooms is about the best on the Bay. A sample from the bar at the King-Ko Inn: Stick your oil money up your ass, Bristol Bay will sail again. There s a lot of sentiment against the coming offshore oil development on the Bay this year. (Big oil, for once, would actually be stopped by fishermen and the fear that the richness of the Bay would be threatened.)
In Eddie s, the other restaurant in King Salmon, I ran into a German sportsman who was completely unaware that there was a big commercial fishery cranking up on the Bay. He wondered what the action was all about and why all the people he was meeting were, as he put it, all jazzed up. I gave him the short version of Bristol Bay madness, and he said, Oh, I see. It s very primitive, this food gathering, you know.
The guy was short and wiry, with eyes like a starved fox, and he was dressed like an L. L. Bean ad. He told me his hobby was philosophy. How anybody can tell a total stranger that his hobby is philosophy is beyond me, and I decided to get out of there quick before the conversation got too European for me. One minute, one minute, he said, as I started to leave. Do you see what I mean? I didn t want to be too rude, so I sat back down. The whole thing is about food gathering, the way people run around, you know. It isn t just the money they come for. One of the things civilization gives us is the freedom from killing our own meat, but the killing has to be done in any case. It requires special ceremonies, special ways, and extra-ordinary places. (He said extra ordinary as two distinct words.) I said, Good fishing, and headed for the road back to Naknek.
Waiting It Out with the Locals
On the way back, I decided to split the pickup torture in two and stopped between King Salmon and Naknek at Bristol Bay Contractors, an all-purpose, haul-anything, arrange-anything expediting company run by the Shawback family. The Shawbacks have been something of a one-clan population boom on the Bay for decades, and their enterprises are everywhere. They run the bus service, rent cars, sell fuel, load and unload freight, and generally service the annual onslaught of people who come for the fish. The Shawbacks also have been fishing on the Bay since the thirties and still run setnet sites and drift boats.
I found Mary Shawback, the matriarch of the family, and she told me the women and hired hands were saddling up to go put out the set-nets for the next tide. Setnetters anchor their gillnets to the beach and the low-tide line and wait for the salmon to run into them at high water. They are slaves to the tides for six weeks, picking their nets on every low. I just got a call on the radio, Mary said in her Athabascan-Irish brogue. They settled the price. Then she started snapping orders at her beach gang while she slipped her sweatshirt over her head. Marianne, you go get the Silver Bullet. Laverne, find out what s happening with the Ranger. She was talking about her trucks. The sweatshirt said BEACH BOSS on the back and MOMSIE on the front. Everybody calls me Momsie, you know. But the beach boss thing, I don t know. I wish I d had about a dozen kids; then I could be a real beach boss and not work at all, she said, laughing.
While she was talking to me, Mary was also on the radio spreading the word-or what proved to be the rumor-that the price had settled. Then we piled into the Silver Bullet, a battered gray pickup-a beach vehicle, Mary called it. The Shawbacks setnet sites are on the beach between Naknek and Pederson Point where the sand is hard enough to drive on. Most of the sites out there are staked out by longtime residents of the area, including Alaska Governor Jay Hammond s wife, Bella. In the Silver Bullet, loaded with nets, totes, and people, and another pickup with the tracked mud-vehicle called the Ranger, the Shawback caravan started for the beach.
Flashing past the canneries along the road into town, Mary sharp-eyed the action and gradually grew concerned that no one else seemed to be getting ready to fish. I never fish before the price is set, Mary said. Never, never. We better stop at Whitney and ask Denton what s going on. He ll know, and besides, I have a Father s Day present for him. Father s Day had just passed, and Mary is one of the Bay s most prolific present-givers. She is also an old friend of Denton Sherry, the Whitney-Fidalgo packing company president. He heated up a lot of fishermen during the 1980 strike when he threatened to evict them from the Whitney property and generally took a hard line on the negotiations
Everybody at Whitney was clearly anxious to go fishing, but when we found Denton, the setnet expedition had to be canceled. No, it s not settled, said the big man with a crewcut and a neck that seemed to grow out of both shoulders. Nobody s even come to talk to me. Not once since I met with Mitch in Seattle have I talked to him, Sherry said. I don t know what is going on.
The season was set to open on June 23, two days away, and though some boats were scratching on the meager run starting to show up, the previous year s contracts had expired. If no settlement was reached by the 23rd, fishermen would officially be striking again. It occurred to me that Mitch Kink might be putting a championship move on Denton Sherry, the man who could have been his most immovable adversary in the price talks. I knew Mitch had been hammering at the other processing companies, I d heard that Alaska Packers across the river in South Naknek was about ready to sign, and still nothing at Whitney, nobody talking to Denton. The strategy at that point seemed to be to ignore him and Whitney until everyone else agreed to the number.
On the Whitney dock, fishermen were rigging gear, painting their boats, and generally hanging out. The centerpiece for milling around was the gillnetter Judy Joyce, resting on a cradle in the middle of the dock and receiving a new coat of bottom paint. She had become the first truly independent boat on Bristol Bay way back in the fifties when Winn Brindle agreed to finance a fisherman who wanted to buy his own boat. Before that, all the boats had been owned by the canneries, and in that bit of history lay some of the background angst of AIFMA and strikes against the packing companies. Independent fishermen, of course, can t be ordered to fish.

The night of June 22, the grounds were closed by Fish and Game, settlement or no settlement, to make sure enough fish were up the creek before turning the fleet loose in perfect weather. Fishing would almost certainly start the next day, so, naturally, everybody was out on the town to enjoy a last prepeak drink or stuff quarters into the battery of electronic TV games that cluttered the Fishermen s Bar at the top of the hill in Naknek. PacMan was a big hit. One guy, an accountant from a cannery, got so good at it that he could play all night for a quarter, getting free games for his scores. People stood around and cheered him.
Across the dusty Naknek main street at one point that evening, I recognized the pool-hall slouch of none other than old bored-of-fish himself, Jim Beaton, who gave me a report from the grounds. One big problem so far for the nonunion boats out there fishing had been the vast number fishing over the line. As Chuck Meacham told me, the fish were hanging out in the outer reaches of the Bay, and the temptation apparently got too great for some fishermen. Beaton was a hardworking member of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, as well as a fisherman and processing entrepreneur with his own freezer ship in the Bay. He told me stories of breakdowns and logistical nightmares that made a floating fish processor sound like a television sitcom, and went on his way.
Later, I went to the arraignments of two of the fishermen busted for fishing over the line, and I understood that there were dozens. In the cases of the two I watched, one pleaded guilty, and Judge Charles Shawback (Mary s cousin) slapped him with a $1,500 fine with $750 suspended, a year s probation, and an order seizing three of his gillnets and the $1,800 worth of fish found on board when he was arrested. The other fisherman, who had two recent prior convictions on similar charges, pleaded not guilty and was released on bail pending trial. His strategy was to postpone a possible conviction until the season was over because he stood to lose his limited-entry permit for a third offense.
The prosecutor, Louis Menendez, comes from a long line of fishermen and seemed to know a lot about the business. These guys have to realize that they re not only breaking the law but threatening future generations if they don t go along with the management regulations on the fishery, he said. We don t want to take too hard a line, but the days of the $100 fine with $50 suspended are over.
After the arraignments, the state enforcement officer invited me on a tour of the Vigilant, a patrol boat. I said I d see about it, but ended up not making the trip because I got stuck during a one-day blow aboard a floating processor out in the deep-water anchorage. The fish cops had a bit of bad luck when their only helicopter piled into a river, but everybody got out okay. The over-the-line boys kept them hopping, I guess.
The night wore on and on in Naknek, the Divine Miss M sang Stay with Me about fifty times, Bonnie Tyler filled in from the Fishermen s Bar down the street with It s a Heartache, and lots of fishermen got happily smashed on two-dollar beer. By noon the next day, word got around that Alaska Packers had gone for the AIFMA number, then Nelbro, then Peter Pan. Mitch said he and the members were happy with the price and ready to go fishing and that Denton Sherry had called him on the phone and said, Bring a contract over; we re ready to go fishing. Mitch, whom one fisherman called the sleeping bear, had, it turned out, put a move on Denton, and it worked. One Whitney fisherman, though, said he would have done it differently than Mitch and taken on the toughest guy first, like in a street fight. Then, he said, everybody else would follow.
But that wasn t Mitch Kink s style, and it wasn t a year for street fighting on the Bay. The settlement was the earliest since 1975. I ran into Chuck Meacham just after the price settled when I was hanging around the Shawbacks setnet site, and he said, Hey, you re going to have a hard time finding something to write about this year. How do you cover happiness?
Well, you set up your tent, and
The Cruel Sixteen on an Icicle Floater
Three days after the price settlement and everybody in the Naknek fleet was singing from the same sheet of music. The salmon gazers at Fish and Game harmonized with Don t Worry, Could Be Any Tide, Now, but their credibility sagged a bit in the face of fishing fever. After all, they were saying a week ago that the run would be five days early, and though the assembled multitudes truly believed millions of fish were on the way, an on-time peak was almost a sour note as the band tuned up for the annual rendering of Drifting and Dreaming.
According to most of the dusty-street rumors, Egegik Bay had been the hot spot for the nonunion fishermen, a mere fifty miles southwest of the Naknek-Kvichak funnel. Many boats out there scratching were reported to be bending the Johnson Hill line to reach for the reds in that direction. The fish cops were busting a few, and fishing in a closed area was roundly condemned by the righteous lashed to their bar stools in the evenings. But the point was the fish weren t here, and they were supposed to be. Unlike the man watching his bobber and slapping his feet on river mud on a warm sunny day, the Bristol Bay drifter is not known for his patience.
Last year, the waiting days on the beach were charged off to the strike, the longest in history, but that s another matter altogether. There s no one to blame, really, no ethic to consider, and, in fact, nothing to worry about in the long run. The fish will show up. Won t they? What if they don t? What if something happens? What if all the sampling and predictions are just flat wrong and only 10 million come instead of 30 million? Here, let me buy this round. Bartender, get these thirsty boys a beer
And then it was over. The rhythms on the morning of the fourth day of waiting changed from adagio to allegro, and Blonde Kate at the D D Cafe leaned with her elbows on the counter, there in her do-rag to keep the curl in her hair, worrying that the Greek would get grouchy when his business fell off and wondering how she d get the money for her operation back in Memphis. She d been telling me about it for days. That morning, I was alone at nine o clock on the eating side of the cigarette-pocked Formica, and I muttered, for the first time, advice to her: Go down to the fuel dock and try to get on a boat.
In repose, the Naknek fuel dock is an ordinary fixture no different from those in dozens of Alaskan ports, but with the biggest salmon run in the world on tap, it was a scene from a James Cagney riot movie. Several hundred boats were jammed together in the shallows, their skippers jockeying for one of about thirty spots at the pier. The boats came alongside and side-tied in bobbing rows out from the face of the dock timbers, sometimes finding space smoothly in turn, sometimes careening like drunks in the parking lot of a country and western bar. The bounders were jeered and cursed when they butted in line, but were never forced out because that would slow things down-and speed is essential. Everyone wanted to get out of the river before the next falling tide slammed the door.
So I was at the fuel dock waiting for the human interest story that would materialize if Blonde Kate threw her apron on the floor and came down to hit up one of these cowboys for a job, and I ran into no less than the chairman of the board of Icicle Seafoods, Bob Thorstensen, who was leaning on a piling cap surveying the scene. I didn t recognize him right off; he had the shades and baseball hat on, naturally, and the salt-and-pepper halibut jacket, but he seemed more like a kind-of-old guy looking for a chance than one of the founders of the biggest fish company in Alaska.
One of his tenders, the Chichagof, was flush to the pier just under where the chairman was standing, and I finally put it together. Hi, Bob. Howdy, Brad. And we re off and running. Five minutes later, I was introduced to the Chichagof s skipper, Joe Carlo, who said his breakfast cruise out to the ship anchorage was leaving within the hour, and if I could get my gear together in time, I was welcome. The chairman invited me to spend time on one of his floating processors, the Bering Star, and I said deal me in and took off to find my kit and Movie Bidness. (Blonde Kate never showed up.)

I finally found Movie Bidness in the house-called-home-by-many, and he was in a foul mood when I woke him. Bidness had one of the greatest hustles I ve ever seen, on the Bay or anyplace else, with his green, waterproof box full of movie cameras, a D. W. Griffith hat he wore turned around backward, and the perfect answer when somebody asked him what the hell he was doing. I m making a movie, he d say. What about? the other guy d say. And people, especially women, would show him their best tricks while Bidness pointed one of his cameras at them. I never did know if he even had film in the damn things, except that every so often he d crouch down somewhere with both hands in a black bag. Changing film, he d say. But you never knew.
Which is routine on the Bay. Movie Bidness and I were like endangered species during the 1981 season. The year before, anybody who could walk, crawl, and hold a pencil or a camera was up to cover the big strike; not so this year. When I ran into Bidness the day I got into King Salmon, we agreed to swap exotic transportation arrangements, and the chairman s offer of a few days on a floater qualified.
The chairman had disappeared by the time we made it back to the fuel dock, and so had the Chichagof, but we saw the tender at anchor out in the river and hitched a ride out on a fish boat. Bidness did his thing with the camera, and I talked to a teenage deckhand from Pittsburg, California, who figured 100,000 pounds of Bristol Bay red salmon a year equaled a used Pontiac Trans Am with a trunk full of drugs and nothing but steelhead fishing, duck hunting, and Malibu Barbies for the rest of his life. His eyes glowed when I told him I heard cash buyers out in the ship anchorage were already paying $1 a pound. Step right up.
Aboard the Chichagof, it turned out that the chairman wasn t kidding about a breakfast cruise; we ate on the five-mile run out to the river mouth, soaking up that special fish-tender hospitality. Skipper Joe Carlo, like all good tendermen, is a blend of mariner, stevedore, and country club bartender, with the easy pace that is always a welcome counterpoint to the mad rush of actual fishing. Stopping for a breath aboard a packer is an old tradition, and it takes a certain kind of personality to buy fish on the grounds.
During the season, the ship anchorage at a point called the Y between the Naknek and Kvichak Rivers is probably the fifth-largest city in Alaska. A hundred ships, tenders, processors, freighters, and barges are anchored out there from the middle of June to the end of July like a portable archipelago. A slight chop was running as the Chichagof wove through the ships, heading for the Bering Star. Bidness ran all over the place, whirring away at the passing splashes of color and seagoing shapes: the big Pacific Pride, looking like a queen s yacht with her railed shelter deck and bright, white paint job; the Lady Pacific, looking like a cross between a barge and a crabber with her Bristol Bay outboard-a Japanese tramper-alongside. The big crab boats were there in force, picking up the off-season packing nickel: the Aleutian Mistress, Taurus, Norseman, Big Blue, Northern Leander, Moriah, and dozens of others. Like attending drones, skiffs were buzzing among ships and boats in the anchorage, and even the air was alive with choppers and light planes flying right down on the decks under the low-lying scud.
Then we saw the Star, with her freighters moored to her port side and the tug, n e oil-field supply boat, Trans Pac to starboard. As we hove to, the entire assemblage looked as if it were ignoring the sea altogether, sitting rock solid with the big, blue shape of the processing barge towering in the center. The Chichagof was bouncing on the morning lump, and Movie Bidness pointed out that our chances of getting off without either falling into the Bay or taking a soaking from the spray were slim. Both of us began preparing ourselves for what was sure to be a very bad moment.
But we made it unscathed and were standing on the sponson of the barge for handshakes before I had a chance to back out of the deal. First, there was Kim Suelzle, who introduced himself as the manager. Then a stunning woman who dashed up to me and Bidness and said, Welcome to the Boring Star, and disappeared through a hatch in the wall and into the maw of what looked like a fifty-foot-high chrome-blue warehouse before Bidness even got his camera out. Then we met Tim Garborino, who said he was the assistant manager.
The Bering Star is a converted military oceangoing barge, once named the Thunderbird. She was reportedly used to haul frozen food to the Philippines and to haul bananas or something like that back to the States. The barge is 255 feet long, 55 feet wide, and draws 10 feet, carries a processing crew of 120 during salmon season, and can crank out 230,000 pounds of headed, gutted, frozen reds a day, or 300,000 pounds frozen whole. Icicle Seafoods bought her from the government in the fall of 1978, hired its own crew for the conversion, and by the spring of 1979, the Bering Star was on the grounds going head to head with a similar-looking processor, the Ultra Processor. The Ultra ran into a bit of bad luck when it dragged anchor and grounded, but so far, no such evil fate had befall

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